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It’s Tanking Time

The Nuggets' season may already be over—and that might be for the best.

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It’s fair to say that no one in the Nuggets’ universe—not the fans, the players, the coaches, nor the front office—figured their 2014-15 season would be doomed before Thanksgiving. The team has been relatively healthy so far and has a roster that’s not all that different from the one that rung up a franchise-record 57 wins just two seasons ago.

But after an opening win against Detroit, the Nuggets have dropped six straight in increasingly depressing fashion. On Wednesday, the team finished strong, outscoring Portland 35-19 in the fourth quarter. Unfortunately, they entered that frame down by 33.

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So far, the Nuggets can’t shoot and can’t defend. They rebound fairly well and they still score a little bit, although not as much or as efficiently as they have in the past. Their point differential is a sub-dismal -10 per game, second only to the Sixers’ -12.8. But Philadelphia is in year two of an explicit, total rebuild and will be lucky to win 10 games all year.

It’s a model the Nuggets should seriously consider emulating. As we’ve noted time and again, the worst place to be in the NBA is in the middle. Right now, the middle would be a vast improvement over a team that’s given up at least 110 points in five straight games and has already played itself out of likely playoff contention in the overloaded Western Conference.

Between poor play and coach Brian Shaw’s perpetually unsettled rotation, the Nuggets have barely shown any life—let alone promise—during the season’s first few weeks, and it’s because they have a roster full of decent-to-good players with no standouts. Ty Lawson is the closest thing they have to an all-star, and even that’s a stretch.

But all that middling talent might actually be quite appealing to a playoff team that’s looking to shore up its roster with solid rotation guys. If the Nuggets were to start trading some of these assets—or all of them—it would torpedo this season, but set them up for a high lottery pick (at least) in next year’s draft. The last time the franchise took this route, it ended up with Carmelo Anthony and nine straight winning seasons.

Naturally, no one in the Nuggets’ organization would openly admit to losing on purpose, and it’s unclear how the fans would react. I have good seats to two more games this year, and I don’t want to watch a bunch of D-leaguers out there any more than you do.

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But ever since it fired George Karl, a defensible move at the time, the team has been playing indefensible basketball, particularly this month. Last year’s raft of injuries made this understandable; this year there’s no excuse.

Much like the Rockies—and utterly unlike the Broncos—the Nuggets lack a coherent long-term vision. The NBA has always been a superstar-driven league, and the Nuggets currently don’t have anyone who remotely fits that description. There may be a few in the next draft, so the sooner the team can position itself to land one or more of them, the better off it will be in the long run.

Follow 5280 editor-at-large Luc Hatlestad on Twitter at @LucHatlestad.

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